Understanding Recency Bias Can Help with Parental Anxiety

What is recency bias?

Have you ever had the feeling that the new and awful behavior your child is exhibiting will progress into a downward spiral, eventually leading them to a life of crime, teen pregnancy, or worse – not getting into college! You may be experiencing what behavioral economists and psychologists call recency bias.

In economics, recency bias helps explain people’s expectations about how the stock market will perform. If the market is doing well, people often buy and buy, expecting that the market will continue doing well. When it drops, people are often surprised at how they didn’t see the drop coming. They expected the pattern of positive gains to continue because the most recent information they had pointed to this.

We see the same bias at play in psychology. We mistakenly take the most recent information given to us and form opinions and make decisions about what will happen in the future. For example, as parents we are constantly speculating about why our kids are doing whatever it is they’re doing, and recency bias affects how we gather information and evaluate these situations.

Some examples where I’ve seen recency bias affect parental judgment:

  • Several bad grades in a row (my child won’t graduate high school)
  • An increase in tantrums (my child is a hot mess, I’m a terrible parent)
  • A loss of appetite  (my child isn’t going to grow properly)
  • Low motivation (my child will wind up living at home till he’s 50)
  • Defiant refusal to follow rules (my child is going to end up in jail)
  • A series of lies  (my child is a pathological liar)
  • Trouble with sleep (my child will never sleep properly again)

Recency bias in parenting

My wife and I often fall prey to recency bias when we analyze our kids’ behavior, especially in situations where their behavior has gone from good to unruly. Here’s a not so recent, but fitting example.

I don’t want to brag, but for most of my son’s two year life, he’s been a fantastic sleeper. Recently he began to fight it. Rather than lie down to sleep, he stood up to scream. He wanted the light on, he wanted a book, he wanted us to stay in the room, he wanted to name all the items in his room. He absolutely didn’t want to go to sleep. After several days of this, we were edging towards panic.

Enter the recency bias. We basically looked at his three-day-no-sleep strike as a signal that his new behavior would continue indefinitely. I think we’ve all been there – you know, that feeling that the ship is sinking and there aren’t any rafts in sight? We start imagining ourselves five years down the line looking fifteen years older with that kid who simply doesn’t sleep.

But we managed, as most parents do, through trial and error. We found that our son stayed calm and eventually would fall asleep provided the light was on and he had a book in his crib.

A storm that will pass

The recently bias isn’t the problem. Rather, it’s the desperate feelings that go along with the bias that often turn what could be a simple fix into an anxiety-ridden mess.

As parents, getting upset usually leads to further negative reactions in our kids. And one way to make a hard situation more manageable is to know and believe that it’s a temporary change – a storm that will pass.

When behavior changes happen with our kids, being mindful of the recency bias is one way to keep a more balanced and even perspective when dealing with the change. (And even if there are cases when the storm doesn’t pass easily, keeping calm is always a good strategy.)

What causes the storm?

Even as a child psychologist, it’s sometimes hard in the moment to understand why my kids are acting the way they do.  But there are a variety of tried and true factors that play a role in sudden behavioral changes:

  • They are upset about not getting what they wanted
  • They are on the verge of a developmental change
  • They had a certain expectation that was not met
  • They are hungry or more likely they’re hangry
  • They are sick or getting sick
  • They had a bad day at school or are stressed about something they have to do for school

Being on the verge of  developmental change is the factor that set off my son’s sleep strike. It’s a phenomenon the developmental psychologist Piaget sums up best. He basically describes the process of learning and development as unsteady and progressing in “leaps and bounds,” and he calls the force that drives development forward “equilibration.” When a child has new ways of perceiving and explaining the world, but his current way of thinking doesn’t include the new information, “disequilibrium” occurs.

Throughout the week of the storm, my son was experiencing disequilibrium. He was extremely interested in communicating the new words he was learning. He seemed too excited about his newfound skill to give it up and go to bed. And staying up as we left the room made him realize he was alone in the room.  He became scared of the dark.

The bottom line: when changes happen suddenly, don’t panic! Take into account all data about your children and not just their most recent developments, and you’ll help to quell your mounting anxiety. My son was a good sleeper for more than two years and a poor one for just two days. Odds are he’ll stay a good sleeper, at least until his next developmental leap.